Not everyone without a home matches the homeless stereotype

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

It’s easy to miss the homeless when they don’t look the part they play.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Development defines homelessness as not having a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.

But the agency also defines homelessness as someone whose regular nighttime residence is a temporary institutional residence — like an abused women’s shelter.

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Suzanne Castello was a member of the middle class with what she described as a nice house and a nice car when she decided to leave her emotionally abusive husband.

“Everything — the house, the car — was all in someone else’s name,” she said. “I knew I was stepping out into homelessness.”

She couldn’t stay with family because they were having problems of their own, and her husband had control of all their money, so Castello turned to the Guardian Shelter in Natchez.

“I had no alternative,” she said. “I had nowhere else to go.”

When she arrived at the shelter, Castello didn’t have any of the required documentation to get a new start because her husband kept her documents like her birth certificate and Social Security card locked in a safe.

Many of the displaced women who end up at the Guardian Shelter find themselves in the same predicament as Castello, which makes the eventual goal of the Guardian Shelter — to provide a more permanent home for the women — all the more difficult.

For example, to get a driver’s license or other state-issued ID, a person might need a copy of a birth certificate, but to get a birth certificate they would need a photo ID.

“They kind of get caught in a catch-22 with that,” Guardian Shelter Director Donna Miller said. “We have to do first things first, and often first things last longer than the housing process.”

The majority of people displaced by domestic violence usually come to the shelter from some kind of living situation, but some come from living in hotel rooms and others from temporary situations that Miller described as “one night here and one night there with different family members.”

Then, there are those whose situation blurs the lines between being displaced and being out-and-out homeless.

“Maybe one out of 10 comes from a situation like living in a car,” Miller said.

The invisible

But just because the majority of the homeless in the Miss-Lou are usually people who jump from one solid sleeping structure to the next, that doesn’t mean that those who fit the traditional understanding of homelessness aren’t around.

“Everybody thinks that there aren’t any homeless people in Natchez because we don’t have to step over them, but they are here and we want to bring that actuality to people’s attention,” Catholic Charities Director Martha Mitternight said.

Part of the reason the homeless are generally invisible is because the Miss-Lou is a rural area with a number of empty buildings downtown area and scattered through the county.

“In the larger cities you may see (homeless) people gathered around an area in a place where a lot of people walk through to get to work,” Mitternight said.

And because people do not see the obvious sights of homelessness daily, they are not aware of it daily.

The homeless may be able to get into empty buildings for some shelter and stay, and because it doesn’t get as cold in the area as it does further north they aren’t in the same kind of danger as in many metros.

“We have structures that are empty that may not be as well maintained as others that someone could break into and find a spot on the inside and shelter them so they are out of the worst of the elements,” Mitternight said.

Finding a home

Castello lived at the Guardian Shelter instead of the streets, but that doesn’t mean that she didn’t feel homeless at first.

“I had a real head-down-to-myself, really meek and timid demeanor,” she said. “I had been convinced the world was a big, scary place. It was a really scary thing.”

After five weeks in the shelter, though, Castello was able to move into an apartment, and the people at the shelter were able to assist her with getting some of the basic housewares she needed like dishes.

She has gotten a job, and was recently able to buy a small car.

But just as important is that she feels like she has been able to break free from the mentality of an abused person.

And she said she’s starting to feel at home in her new situation.

“I feel safe and comfortable,” she said.